Can “red princess” Georgia Gould escape New Labour?

Events following the Grenfell Tower fire have thrust the Camden council leader into the national spotlight.

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On the morning of 24 June, an uncomfortable moment for Georgia Gould was captured on camera. The 31-year-old, elected as the council leader for the north London borough of Camden only on 2 May, was accosted on the Chalcots Estate in Swiss Cottage by a 72-year-old resident, Shirley Phillips. Like hundreds of others, Phillips had been evacuated from her home the previous night, after a safety inspection prompted by the Grenfell Tower fire found that the five blocks on the estate were also at risk.

“I’ve sat in a chair over here since nine o’clock last night. I’m 72 years old, I suffer with emphysema,” Phillips said. “Now I’m being told they can’t rehouse me because I’ve got a dog. What do they want me do? Put my dog to sleep?”

In the video of the incident, Phillips’s anger is palpable. Gould tries to reassure her, saying, “We definitely, definitely can get you housing for your dog.” The older woman snaps back: “But when?”

It was the kind of raw and unmediated encounter between politician and public that Theresa May was trying to avoid when she initially declined to meet Grenfell residents after the fire there on 14 June. But Gould could not stay away. Action was unavoidable: the Chalcots Estate has external cladding similar to Grenfell’s.

Gould told Radio 4’s Today programme on 24 June that the council had offered to fund a permanent fire service presence on the estate while work was carried out, but was told that it would not reduce the risk. As a last resort, she’d had to order the mass evacuation.

Gould is young and relatively inexperienced, but events have thrust her into the national spotlight as all levels of government attempt to fix problems caused by years of austerity and decades of poor funding for housing.

Gould is used to attention. She comes from an eminent political-literary family: her father, Philip, who died of oesophageal cancer in 2011 at the age of 61, was a strategy and polling adviser to the Labour Party from 1987 to 2005. Her mother is the publisher Gail Rebuck.

Philip Gould was credited as a leading architect of the New Labour project and was made a peer in 2004. Having worked in advertising, he pioneered the use of focus groups as a political tool. Gail Rebuck is also a Labour peer, as well as the UK chair of the publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House.

Gould, who grew up in the borough that she now represents, has described the family home as “a tribal Labour household”. Speaking to the London Evening Standard in late June, she said of her relationship with her father: “We fought a lot, agreed a lot. He gave me a strong set of values.” In the book that he wrote about his final months, When I Die, Philip Gould wrote that Georgia “wanted to know all about the way I thought . . . why did I believe what I believed?”.

On 2 May 1997 when Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street, Georgia and her younger sister, Grace, were there, waving flags and wearing “Things Can Only Get Better” T-shirts. There’s even a photograph of her in Labour’s 1987 manifesto, a baby in the arms of the party’s then leader, Neil Kinnock.

After studying history and politics at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and global politics at the London School of Economics, she stood unsuccessfully for selection as a Labour candidate in the safe seat of Erith and Thamesmead in 2009, before being elected a Labour councillor for the Kentish Town ward of Camden in 2010, at the age of 24. Before becoming council leader, she served as the cabinet member responsible for young people, adult social care and health.

In 2015, Gould published a book called Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future. It draws on two years spent travelling around the UK interviewing young people about why they weren’t engaged in politics. Given how influential the increase in youth turnout was in this year’s general election, Gould’s work seems prescient (though she supported Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper in the 2015 Labour leadership election).

Because of her privileged family background, Gould is often referred to as a “red princess” or as one of “Blair’s babies”. She has always tried her best to underplay her fortunate political upbringing, telling the Camden New Journal in April that her own luck in life has made her more determined to help others. Since failing to get selected for a Westminster seat in 2009, she has said that she is not looking to be an MP.

After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, local government is under unprecedented levels of scrutiny, as demonstrated by the resignation on 21 June of Nicholas Holgate, the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council.

Gould’s encounter with Camden residents shows that she will have to negotiate a great deal of public anger with grace and humility, if she is to repair the damage done by years of neglect. Yet this could also be her moment to prove that she is more than a red princess, more than a gilded member of the Blairite aristocracy. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague